How to Remove Musty Odors From Towels

person smelling towels

The Spruce / Ana-Maria Stanciu

Project Overview
  • Working Time: 5 mins
  • Total Time: 3 hrs

Out of all of your laundry items, towels may be used the most frequently. Have you ever wondered how clean water can make a towel smell so bad? Could it be that the towels are not really clean?

Towels are supposed to get wet, but they are not supposed to stay wet. If you throw your wet towel into the hamper or leave it wadded up in a ball on the floor, it is going to stay wet. And while it is wet, that creates the perfect environment for germs and mold to grow.

Learn what you can do to remedy this problem and how to prevent it from recurring.

tools for removing musty towel odors
The Spruce / Ana-Maria Stanciu
Stain type Mildew
Detergent type Vinegar and baking soda
Water temperature Hot
Cycle type Normal

Click Play to Learn How to Easily Get Rid of Musty Towel Odors

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Washing machine
  • Clothesline
  • Tennis balls or felted wool dryer balls (Optional)


  • Baking soda
  • Water
  • Vinegar


Before You Begin

Musty towel smell is the same issue that happens with unsanitary mop heads that are not left to dry properly or cleaning sponges that fail to dry out between uses. A warm, moist environment is most conducive to germs. When a towel gets a sour, musty smell, it is a sign that a bacteria colony is breeding and growing. Most often, a bunched up, damp towel in a warm room is all it takes for a colony to start.

Hanging a towel to allow air to circulate and dry it after use is definitely the best way to prevent odors. If you have a family, particularly with younger children, it may not be likely that every towel gets hung up properly.

person hanging a towel on a rack
The Spruce / Ana-Maria Stanciu


One way to get compliance with towel hanging is to assign each person in the house their own color-coded towels. You can figure out who is causing the towel infraction by noticing the color of the towel wadded up on the floor. Work with the person to develop the habit of hanging their towels after each use and come up with creative towel-hanging ideas, too.

It is also important to remember to switch towels quickly from the washing machine to the dryer and clean your lint filter regularly to make sure that your dryer is running as efficiently as possible. If you notice that it takes a long time to dry towels, you may have a problem with your washing machine leaving too much water in them or with your dryer.

Also, just like dishwashers and other regularly used appliances, your washing machine needs a good cleaning every now and then. Fortunately, washing the washer is pretty easy, as the appliance does most of the work for you. If you regularly wash your whites with chlorine bleach, then that is sufficient for cleaning your washing machine. But, if you forego the use of bleach, then periodically do a wash cycle with four cups of white vinegar on hot for the longest wash cycle.

how to prevent musty towel odors

The Spruce / Ashley Nicole DeLeon


Sometimes even when you are trying to prevent odors, your towels can still end up smelling a little off. If this occurs, you can try just one of these tips, or to really get the most bang for your buck, try them all back-to-back.

  1. Machine Wash With Vinegar

    Run your towels through a regular cycle with very warm or hot water, your regular detergent, and a cup of vinegar as a natural fabric softener for the rinse cycle.

    person adding vinegar to the washer compartment
    The Spruce / Ana-Maria Stanciu 
  2. Machine Wash With Baking Soda

    Run the towels through the regular cycle again, this time using only a half cup of baking soda and no detergent or fabric softener. Just the baking soda will do the trick.

    person adding baking soda to the washing machine
    The Spruce / Ana-Maria Stanciu
  3. Dry Your Towels

    Once you have done the vinegar and baking soda treatment, you need to dry your towels. Many swear by the fact that line-dried items smell fresher, though they often do not feel as soft. One way to have the best of both worlds is to do both. Hang the towels outside. When they are dry, toss them in the dryer with one or two new or very clean tennis balls or felted wool dryer balls. The sound of the tennis balls in the dryer may drive you crazy, but it will also fluff up the towels and make them softer. If line drying is not an option, you can dry in your dryer with the tennis balls, but skip the dryer sheets.

    towels in the dryer with dryer balls
    The Spruce / Ana-Maria Stanciu